San Diego Chargers 2003 season preview

ADDITION BY SUBTRACTION?Fans across the country might have a difficult time recognizing the 2003 Chargers. With one of the NFL's busiest offseasons, the Chargers decided to head in a completely new direction by getting rid of two long-time Chargers staples: linebacker Junior Seau and safety Rodney Harrison. Between the two of them, they have played 23 seasons with the Chargers and have been to the Pro Bowl 15 times. Offensively, the Chargers parted ways with wide receiver Curtis Conway, who led the team with 852 yards receiving and five touchdown receptions last year.

To compensate for the heavy loss in talent on the defensive side of the ball, the Chargers signed Arizona Cardinals safety Kwamie Lassiter to replace Harrison. Other than that, they are hoping third-year linebacker Zeke Moreno can step up from a reserve role with the team last year to fill Seau's spot. Second-year cornerback Quentin Jammer, who was the Chargers top pick in 2002, will also be counted on to improve the team's 30th-ranked defense from a year ago.

Offensively, the Chargers brought in 2002 Pro-Bowl fullback Lorenzo Neal from the Cincinnati Bengals and 2001 Pro-Bowl wide receiver David Boston from the Arizona Cardinals. Together, they should improve the Chargers' 16th-ranked offense of 2002. Regardless, running back LaDainian Tomlinson returns from last season after finishing second in the league with 1683 rushing yards and scoring a team-leading 15 touchdowns.

Returning to lead the troops for a second year is old-school head coach Marty Schottenheimer, who boasts a career head-coaching record of 161-101. He has led his teams to the playoffs 11 times, which leads all active NFL head coaches, but he is still in search of a Lombardi Trophy.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: For third-year quarterback Drew Brees, the upcoming season may be his make-or-break year. With another performance like 2002, he could be the next Chargers starter on the cutting block.

Last season, Brees played in all 16 games, completing 60.8 percent of his passes, throwing 17 touchdown passes and running for one as well. Unfortunately, Brees threw 16 interceptions and guided the Chargers to a sputtering 0-4 finish and a seventh consecutive season without a playoff berth.

One thing that Brees cannot blame for his mediocre 2002 performance is the supporting cast that was around him. Tomlinson returns after leading the Chargers in rushing for the past two seasons. He also led the Chargers with 79 receptions in 2002. Additionally, Tomlinson will have the services of Neal to open even larger holes for him to run through in 2003. For the past six NFL seasons, Neal has paved the way for a 1,000-yard rusher during each year.

The receiving corps, bolstered by deep-ball threat Boston, is banking on the improvement of second-year wide receiver Reche Caldwell to draw more defenders away from the box and keep the double teams away from Boston. Tight end Stephen Alexander's role in the Chargers offense will be determined by his health. In the past two seasons, he has missed 10 games due to injury.

PROVING THEIR WORTH:When a defense loses as much as the Chargers lost during the offseason, there will be a fair share of critics that doubt whether the Chargers will be able to stop anyone in 2003. At the same time, a defense that finished 30th in the NFL in 2002 cannot be too much worse.

With Lassiter being their only key addition, the Chargers have a lot of young players that need to step up quickly. Besides Moreno and Jammer, second-year linebacker Ben Leber returns after starting 14 games in 2002. Also, former 2001 third-round pick Tay Cody will be counted on to hold down the right cornerback spot after missing 12 games last season with a toe injury.

Chargers fans will be relieved to know that there are two mainstays from last season that will continue to cause havoc for opposing offenses. High-speed defensive end Marcellus Wiley returns after abdominal surgery during the offseason. His impact will be based on how well he can recover from injury and rediscover the form that led to his 13-sack, Pro-Bowl debut with the Chargers in 2001.

Also returning is the Chargers hometown hero from Chula Vista, Calif., linebacker Donnie Edwards, who led the team in tackles and interceptions in 2002 en route to his first Pro-Bowl appearance.

SOMETHING SPECIAL: Rookie cornerback Drayton Florence, who was the Chargers second-round pick in the 2003 NFL Draft out of Tuskegee, has made a name for himself in training camp. Currently, he is the team's kickoff returner and he might also see time in the Chargers nickel role.

High-energy wide receiver Tim Dwight, who had a career-high 50 receptions last season, will return punts. Last season, he averaged 12.2 yards per punt on 19 punt returns.

Australian Darren Bennett will handle the punting duties, while 13-year veteran Steve Christie, who kicked two game-winning field goals in overtime last season, will be the kicker.

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY:The Chargers' 2003 schedule will be challenging, considering they play five teams that made the 2002 playoffs, including the 2003 Super-Bowl runner-up Oakland Raiders twice in AFC West play.

             On
             the bright side, the Chargers play the Cincinnati Bengals,
             Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and Jacksonville
             Jaguars, who all failed to make the playoffs and finished a
             combined 21-59 in 2002. 
             The Chargers' hopes for post-season play will most likely come
             down to their final three regular-season games. In week 15, they
             play the Green Bay Packers at home. The following week, they
             travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers. In one of the
             NFL's most bitter and entertaining rivalries, the Chargers will
             close out their season at home against the Oakland Raiders.
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